Ok, no-one wants to touch Preaching Groups. I respect that.
Let’s return to the parables.
By now we know. Jesus is the man who found treasure, the merchant looking for fine pearls and He’s the good samaritan. So now we turn to the most famous parable.
And what shall we call it? The prodigal son? Of course not, there are two sons. Well then how about that for a title – the two sons? Perhaps. But are they really the focus? Why not call it what Michael Ramsden tells us many oriental cultures call it: The parable of the running father.
Clearly it’s the father who is the hero of the story. Going out to meet the younger and then the older son, the father’s deepest passion is to reconcile his estranged children to himself.
And both children definitely need to be reconciled. The younger son may have asked for the inheritance but the older son also takes it when it’s offered (Luke 15:12). They’ve both taken the fruits of the death of their father and have spurned their filial relationship with him.
Physical distance and a slave relationship characterizes both sons, it’s just more obvious with the prodigal. The younger son puts a lot of distance between he and his father but the basis on which he returns is thoroughly calculating. He plots to return as a hired hand and uses a form of repentance very reminiscent of Pharaoh’s counterfeit repentance in Exodus 10:16. Everything in the story up until the father’s embrace shows that the prodigal prefers to be a slave at a distance than a son in the father’s arms.
And that is just as true of the older son. We find him out in the field, refusing to go in (physical distance). And again, how does he perceive his relationship to his father? “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” (v29) Physical distance and a slave relationship mark both sons. The only difference is how the two sons receive the approach of the father. The one melts in the arms of his father, the other remains angry outside the house.
And now to turn to the title of this post: Who’s the daddy?
Well, you’ve heard it preached numerous times I’m guessing. What did the preacher say? The father is God right? I mean it’s obvious isn’t it? We call God ‘Father’ and here’s a story of a reconciling father – it must be God.
Well don’t forget how Luke 15 begins.
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable… (Luke 15:1-3)
The occasion for the three stories – lost sheep, lost coin, reconciling father – is the grumbling of the Pharisees. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, and the religious complain about it. So then Jesus tells a story about a man who welcomes a sinner, eats with him, and someone complains about it. Well now – who is the younger son? The sinners and tax collectors of course. Who is the older son? The Pharisees and teachers of the law of course. And who is the father who eats with one and is complained to by the other? Jesus of course.
Jesus is the father. Plain and simple. Jesus is the father. Jesus is the good shepherd (v4-7), he’s the good woman (v8-10), he’s the good father (v11-32). It just seems blindingly obvious don’t you think? And have we been confused on this simply because of the role ‘father’? Well Jesus casts himself as father even in the Gospels – ‘Son, your sins are forgiven… Daughter, your faith has healed you.’ He has children (Is 8:18; 53:10; Heb 2:13; see also Luke 7:35). If He can be a woman and even a mother hen, it’s not at all inappropriate for Him to be pictured as father.
But perhaos there’s this objection: Doesn’t this rob us of the story’s potential to reveal to us the Fatherhood of God. Well no it shapes our understanding of it properly. Surely we want to understand God the Father in God the Son. And this parable helps us do that very well. As we see Jesus running to the lost and eating with sinners we can hear Him saying “I do none of this by myself, I am doing only what I see My Father doing.” But the fact remains we see the Fatherhood of God in Jesus, who is the central character – portrayed as father. The story is about Jesus – the Jesus who goes out to reconcile both the religious and the irreligious to bring them in.
Does this matter? Well yes. What if the story is spun in the usual manner – i.e. the father = God and those who come to their senses will get back into his good books? Well if that’s the story then we’ve just described Islam not the gospel. Kenneth Bailey puts the case for the Muslim interpretation like this (h/t Matt Finn)
“Their case can be stated thus: In this parable the Father obviously represents God while the younger son represents humankind. The son leaves home, gets into trouble and finally decides to return to his Father. He “yistaghfir Allah” (he seeks the forgiveness of God). On arrival the Father welcomes the son and thus demonstrates that he, the father, is “rahman wa rahim” (merciful and compassionate). There is no cross and no incarnation, no “son of God” and “no saviour”, no “word that becomes flesh” and no “way of salvation”, no death and no resurrection, no mediator and no mediation. The son needs no help to return home. The result is obvious. Jesus is a good Muslim who in this parable affirms Muslim theology. The heart of the Christian faith is thus denied by the very prophet Christianity claims to follow. Islam with neither a cross nor a saviour preserves the true message of the prophet Jesus”.
The Cross and the Prodigal, Kenneth Bailey, p15
But no, Jesus is at the very centre of this drama. And His reconciliation is unlike anything Allah could or would offer. He goes out, He bears the shame, He pleads, He appears weak and He celebrates sinners. This is not prompted by the sinner’s repentance, which was calculating at best, but by His own reconciling love. Take this together with the other two stories which form a single ‘parable’ according to verse 3 and what do you have? You have (as Barth put it) the father going into the far country to hoist the lost onto his shoulders and bring them home. Luke 15 is no Christ-less, cross-less forgiveness tale. Christ and His cross is the heart of it all.
Michael Ramsden’s sermon is extraordinary preaching (though, if I’m picky, a bit vague on the point at issue here)
Keller’s sermon is wonderful (though, again, not as straightforward on this point as I’d like).
Here’s my attempt at a Luke 15 sermon